Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2011 record: 4-12)
What went wrong?:
It’s like a fill-in-the-blanks movie script in which the protagonist experiences a horrific downward spiral, and isn’t quite sure how he hit rock bottom. The Buccaneers in 2010 came within striking distance of the playoffs, going 10-6 and needing other teams to lose on the last day of the regular season. Unfortunately for them, Green Bay claimed the last available wild card spot, and went on to make the most of it.
But Tampa had a lot to be happy about. They were coming of a 3-13 year in 2009, and Josh Freeman proved to be a franchise quarterback in 2010 (25 TD, 6 INT, 3,451 yards, 95.9 rating). LeGarrette Blount was a breakthrough star at running back, putting up 1000 yards and 6 touchdown rushes after going undrafted. The defense allowed less than twenty points a game, and put up three pick-sixes (including one from Aqib Talib, who had six total interceptions for the year).
In fact, things started out fine in 2011. After a close win over the Saints on October 16, the Bucs went to 4-2. The Bears upended them a week later, sending Tampa into the bye week at 4-3.
They would never recover.
The Buccaneers would lose their next nine games out of the bye week. The last ten losses were largely one-sided affairs; only three of them were by ten points or less. The average margin of defeat was 17.5 points. Tennessee in Week 12 put up the lowest total of the ten teams who defeated Tampa: 23 points.
The Buccaneers allowed 34.9 points per game during their ten straight losses; a far cry from the 19.9 they averaged for the year in 2010.
Freeman came crashing back to earth during this nightmare. His stat line was nowhere near as pristine as his previous season; only his passing yards increased (3,592). Everything else dropped off: 16 TD, 22 INT, for a 74.6 rating. Freeman threw 16 of those picks in those last ten games, versus 11 touchdowns.
As Freeman suffered, the offense suffered. Blount dropped from 5.0 yards a carry in 2010 to 4.2 in 2011. Once-trusty back-up Earnest Graham only played in seven games, putting more of a burden on Blount’s physical style (Blount missed two games).
As for the defense’s suffering, having a rookie at middle linebacker diagnose the plays after the exit of the time-tested Barrett Ruud will account for some of the drop-off. Mason Foster put up good numbers in the middle with 84 tackles and 2 sacks, but he was in a tough spot at the heart of the D, and the rushing defense numbers (156 yards per game in 2011, 132 in 2010) got worse as the season wore on.
What have they done to fix it?:
Has any head coach ever lost the last ten games of a season and kept his job? Well, besides the ones that are brought in to fix 1-15 squads?
Head coach Raheem Morris was fired along with the entire coaching staff. In Morris’ place, Tampa hired Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose college tenure peaked in 2006, when he led the Scarlet Knights to an 11-2 record, and a blowout win over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.
Among the restaffing of coaches in Tampa is new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who coached the Giants’ wide receivers and quarterbacks over the previous six seasons, which includes two Super Bowl titles. It was his work with Eli Manning over the past two seasons that is credited for getting the most of out of a now-two-time Super Bowl MVP.
When Schiano was first hired, his mandate was to instill discipline among the ranks, and he’s making good on his word. After OTAs, veteran Ronde Barber was quick to note the difference between Schiano and Morris, as Morris was a laid-back “players coach”, whereas Schiano has no problem making demands of his players. Aqib Talib has gone as far as to call it night-and-day from Morris’ final year, when players were going through the motions, and it showed.
Not on Schiano’s watch.
While most first-year head coaches could easily be termed as “hands-on”, wanting to make a good impression, Schiano has thrown himself into his new job, particularly in shuffling the roster. In giving the defense a makeover, Schiano added defensive tackle Amobi Okoye to the line. Okoye was reliable in his four years with the Texans, and had four sacks in 2011 for Chicago, despite starting only one game. Cornerback Eric Wright was added from Detroit to add secondary depth with Barber and Talib, but a recent DUI arrest may put Schiano’s commitment to discipline and positive image to the test.
On offense, the transformation continues as the need to get Freeman back to form is imperative. Schiano dealt tight end Kellen Winslow to Seattle for a seventh round choice, not long after Winslow rolled his eyes and scoffed at Schiano’s precision approach to practice. Odd, because Winslow’s a ‘soldier’, and you’d think he’d respond to someone barking out orders like a drill sergeant.
But if you want a tight end who’s a team player, you can do what Schiano did and bring in Dallas Clark. Although Clark’s production has slipped due to injuries in recent years, he’s still a hard worker who will have no problem falling in line with Schiano’s style.
Speaking of proven winners, Schiano already has Pro Bowl talent like Donald Penn and Davin Joseph on the offensive line, so what’s one more stud? Carl Nicks got a five year deal to switch division allegiances and leave New Orleans to deal with their defensive scandal. The Hogs in Washington won Super Bowls with solid quarterbacks in Doug Williams and Mark Rypien; a line this great in Tampa gives Josh Freeman distinct advantages, like more time to throw.
And if he’s going to throw, why not throw to Vincent Jackson, the crown jewel of their free agency coups? With 3,519 yards and 28 touchdowns over the last four seasons (Remember that Jackson missed 11 games in a holdout in 2010), “V-Jack” is the most dynamic target Freeman’s had in his young career.
As for the draft, Tampa possessed three picks in the top sixty, and used them to fill glaring needs: Mark Barron provides a fresh perspective at safety (Tampa didn’t even bother re-signing Tanard Jackson or Sean Jones), Doug Martin will split time with Blount at running back to fortify the ground game, and All-American linebacker Lavonte David will aid with the young linebacking corps as they try and build resistance against the run.
The NFC South may be the conference’s toughest division. While the Saints may have a stronghold right now, the situations with Brees and the bounty rogue’s gallery are unnecessary distractions for an otherwise great team. They’ve overcompensated for weakness with signings like Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Ben Grubbs, so maybe the offseason headaches will be neutralized.
Carolina’s fixing to make the leap in Cam Newton’s sophomore campaign (especially with Mike Tolbert now as his backfield blocker), and Atlanta’s got a chip on their shoulder after their two-point playoff performance. But Tampa Bay is looking sharp and aggressive with a new collective mindset, and a plethora of roster upgrades.
Someone’s going to be disappointed in the NFC South, and Tampa’s gone to great lengths to ensure that it’s not them.